Baroness Vere of Norbiton
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today, and particularly those who forewarned me of the issues they were going to raise; that is incredibly helpful when there are so many speakers in a debate. I will try to cover everything, but, if not, I will of course write.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, seemed a little irritated by the Government on this one. However, engagement with the transport operators has been continuous since the start of the Covid pandemic, and of course we discussed face coverings with them. We announced the policy on 4 June and then talked about how it would be put into operation with the transport operators and the devolved authorities, which I will come back to a little later.
Noble Lords will recall that 15 June was the date on which non-essential retail was opened. Prior to that, there was very little demand at all on public transport. We therefore felt that 15 June was the right time to put this in place. However, given the urgency of the situation, we felt that it was necessary to use the “made affirmative” procedure; it has been used before, in particular for some of the Brexit SIs, but it is not used lightly by the Government. In this case, we felt that it was entirely appropriate, given that it was a rapidly changing situation.
As noble Lords will have heard many times before, the Government are guided by the scientific advice as it develops—and the scientific advice has developed. Unfortunately, that may mean that, with hindsight—hindsight is a marvellous thing in a pandemic—one could say that communications were confused, but actually, it is that the scientific advice has developed. SAGE now advises that using a cloth face covering, as a precautionary measure, could be at least partially effective in enclosed spaces, such as public transport, where social distancing is not always possible, in particular where there is a risk of close social contact with multiple people who a person does not usually meet. Of course, we looked at the advice from SAGE and at academic articles when making the decision that we have now reached.
My noble friend Lady Altmann asked whether or not we should have standards for face coverings. We deliberately wanted to avoid being prescriptive about the form that a face covering should take, because it should be easy for people to put something over their nose and mouth and get on public transport. I reassure her that wearing, for example, a visor that covers the mouth and nose, and which might be made out of plastic, would be in scope. We expect people to buy or make face coverings, and there is guidance on the government website as to how to make them. I know that cheap face coverings are widely available. I bought mine on the internet. They appear to be made of offcuts from ladies’ underwear, but they cost very little and they do the trick.
I return to the devolved Administrations. I have had many conversations about the devolved Administrations in my time as a Minister, and, if I may say so, most of them are complaints that the devolved Administrations are not being allowed to diverge. Now, we are in a situation where a number of noble Lords are incensed that the devolved nations have been allowed to make decisions for themselves. I remain confused.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talked about Wales. I absolutely understand the issues in Wales, and it is the case that there are different regulations in England and in Wales. But that is devolution. However, the Government strongly encourage passengers to wear face coverings for the entirety of their journey. Of course, we have continual conversations with the devolved nations on these sorts of matters, but I reassure all noble Lords that, as yet, no significant issues have arisen on cross-border services.
Exemptions are a critical part of this face covering regulation. Noble Lords will understand that we will never get to 100%—if we did so, we would have done it wrong, as it would mean that people were not making full use of the available exemptions. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, wanted a definition of the difference between an exemption and a reasonable excuse. I think an exemption is something that would apply all the time, as a person would be exempt for a certain reason. A reasonable excuse, however, could involve someone who is fleeing violence or in another situation that may not apply all the time but meant that, at that moment, that person had a reasonable excuse not to wear a face covering.
The list is not exhaustive; for example, there are exemptions for children, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, raised a very important point about people who rely on lip reading and facial expressions. We want people to take a pragmatic approach where, if they feel that they should be exempted, they should be. We are working closely with the transport operators. We have been talking to them about the amount of training that staff will have to make sure they are aware that these exemptions are in place. A number of operators have a badge, lanyard or card scheme—one such scheme was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. I believe that these help and I am encouraging transport operators to put them in place, but their use is entirely optional. Certainly, it is not expected that people should have to wear a lanyard to get an exemption; we have to be pragmatic.
I want especially to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for sharing the work they have seen on identifying symbols for those who might benefit from extra protection; this was very interesting and I was extremely grateful. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we are working to get the message out—particularly to those who can help us to target specific groups which may not be fully aware of the exemptions.
A number of noble Lords commented on children under 11. Our equalities impact assessment found that it would be difficult and impractical to require primary school children to wear and keep on a face covering. However, we still recommend that children between the ages of three and 11 should wear a face covering. The noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady McIntosh, talked about transport for schoolchildren. This will be really important, particularly as schoolchildren return in September. We are following scientific advice; in many circumstances—particularly for children who use local-authority procured coaches or other vehicles—they will be travelling in bubbles, either within their own year group or, at least, within their own schools or a couple of schools in the area. They will therefore not be mixing with a vast number of people with whom they do not usually have contact. That is the difference between schoolchildren and other people, and why we do not feel that children on school transport need to wear face coverings. We did an equalities impact assessment on this, which included considerations relating to BAME groups and advice from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, to ensure that we understand what exemptions and other issues might arise.
I am pleased to say that the current level of compliance between 22 and 28 June was 91%. There will always be circumstances where noble Lords have seen people who are not complying—I completely agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned young men. I too am concerned about young men. Perhaps they are enjoying the new-found freedoms of the pub and, on leaving, find it all too easy to forget to put a face covering on. Perhaps the mantra for young men should be, “spectacles, face covering, wallet and watch” before leaving the house; we will have to see whether that catches on.
On enforcement, this is an incredibly delicate balance. At the moment, we are looking at engagement rather than enforcement, although we are ramping up enforcement because we feel that people have had time enough for this message to sink in. We will also continue to work with transport operators; on the point raised by my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, any abuse of transport operators or staff will not be tolerated. Some transport operators are changing their conditions of carriage to make sure that they can apply these face covering regulations as broadly as possible. Children between the ages of 11 and 18 cannot be given a fixed penalty notice; I do not feel that that would be right. However, they can be asked to leave a service just as anyone else can be—that is how this will be enforced.
On the question of why the regulations apply only to public transport, I have talked about why this is particularly important for public transport. However, the Government recommend the use of face coverings in all enclosed settings where social distancing is not possible, which would include shops, and, of course, we are keeping this policy under review.
I will have to write to noble Lords on taxis and PHVs, as well as on aviation, as I am running out of time. However, let me reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the availability of face coverings, which is incredibly important. We have already distributed over 2 million face coverings to local transport operators. Network Rail has been installing vending machines at Network Rail-managed stations. I am sure that all noble Lords have seen the availability of face coverings online and in local shops.
I once again thank all noble Lords for their contributions. There will be a follow-up letter to this debate with further information. I beg to move.